While it may have huge ramifications for Britain, Europe, and the world’s economy, Britain’s decision on Thursday to leave or remain a part of the 28-state European Union will have little impact on Israel, Yigal Palmor, a veteran diplomat, said on Wednesday.
Palmor’s comments followed a statement made on Monday evening by Prime Minister David Cameron, who – in an address to a fund-raising event for the Jewish Care welfare organization in London – argued that Britain’s remaining in the EU would be beneficial for Israel.
“Do you want Britain, Israel’s greatest friend, in there opposing boycotts, opposing the campaign for divestment and sanctions, or do you want us outside the room, powerless to effect the discussion that takes place?” Cameron asked. The idea underpinning Cameron’s argument was that Israel needs a friend like Britain inside the EU to go to bat for it when it matters.
Palmor, the Jewish Agency’s director of communications who served in several diplomatic postings in Europe before becoming the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman from 2008 to 2014, sought to put the United Kingdom’s friendship toward Israel inside the EU into context.
Britain, he said, is not Israel’s “go-to guy” inside the EU, a role fulfilled by countries such as the Czech Republic, Germany or – to a certain degree – Italy, at least in the past.
“Britain is generally a voice inside the EU that understands us,” Palmor said. “It is not like the Czech Republic, Italy or Germany, but also not like Ireland, Sweden and Spain,” he said of three countries considered among the most critical of Israel inside the EU. “The British are relatively more open to our arguments, but they are not the game changer; not the go-to guy.”
By the same token, he said, if Britain is supportive inside the EU, it can also be supportive outside the EU. Palmor said it is unlikely that the EU’s attitudes toward Israel would change significantly whether the British foreign minister is present at the regular EU foreign minister meetings or not.
Regarding military and security cooperation, and what would happen in those spheres if Britain opted out of the EU, Palmor pointed out that the two serious armies inside the EU belong to Britain and France. Military relations with those countries, he noted, are more bilateral than EU-based, meaning that the trading of intelligence information and technology is carried out on a bilateral basis, rather than through the framework of the EU.
As such, that relationship with Britain’s would not be affected by which camp wins Thursday’s vote, the “Remain” or the “Leave.”
Another major aspect of the Israel-British relationship concerns the universities, and research and development ties. Though there are wide-ranging educational and research agreements with the EU that touch on British universities, the British universities – which are arguably the best in Europe – will continue to have a huge role even if the United Kingdom leaves the EU, and certainly bilateral agreements can be reached.
EU grants are obviously bigger than those that come from any individual country, but Palmor said that because of the prestige of the British universities, the EU will certainly reach a cooperation agreement with them.
Britain’s diplomatic status, moreover, will remain considerable, stemming from its status as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with the US, Russia, China and France. As far as the Mideast is concerned, Palmor said he could envision – with a British exit from the EU – the Mideast Quartet, currently made up of the US, EU, Russia and UN, turning into a Quintet, with the admission of Britain.
A British exit, he further added, would not mean that the EU will completely lose its global standing, nor would it cease to try to influence matters in the Middle East. Israel will not be able to ignore an EU without Britain, any more than it is able to ignore an EU with Britain, he said.
While a British decision either way will unlikely have much of an impact on Israel, Palmor did say Israel still needs to be concerned. If a decision to remain or to leave fundamentally changes EU policies regarding issues such as immigration or fighting Islamic State, it could have a ripple effect in the Middle East that would be felt in Israel.
For instance, any change in the EU’s refugee policy could mean more refugees flooding Lebanon or Jordan, something that could destabilize those regimes and have an impact on Jerusalem.
Whatever happens, he said, the hope is that there will be “no ripples.”